Nature Calls: Honeybees

When my mom bought her hummingbird feeder, she envisioned spending mornings watching the charming dynamos flit about. But within hours the feeder was swarmed by bees. Hundreds of them. Not only did the hummingbirds stay away, but so did most of the other birds. She tried several bee deterrents like painting the feeder a different color and using olive oil, but the bees never got that memo so they keep coming. At her wit’s end she said, “If I could just find that hive…” Of course she wouldn’t do anything untoward, but I suggested that we look on the bright side. Honeybee populations are in sharp decline. Maybe she’s doing a community service.

I’d heard the bad news about honeybees, but I didn’t know why or what that really meant, so  I did a bit of digging.

Starting in 2006, honeybee populations have dropped about 30-50 percent. (Natural die-off is usually between 5-10 percent, which is a regenerative rate.) Why is this a big deal? The US Department of Agriculture reports that honeybee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in crops each year, including apples, citrus fruits, asparagus, and soybeans. More than one-third of the food you eat is a direct result of the hardworking bees!

And almond crops are completely dependent on them.During growing season, the state of California brings in 1.4 million honeybee colonies to do their thing for the almond trees.

The really curious thing about the decline is that there are no dead bees in the hive, just the queen and a fraction of the usual worker bees. First, let’s take a look at the structure of a hive.

There are three types of honeybees (Apis mellifera) in each hive.

The Queen:

* Her job is to lay as many eggs as possible to produce the next generation.

* She lives between 1 and 4 years.

* If she dies, the workers will produce a substance called “royal jelly” and feed it to another worker, which enables her to become a fertile queen. How they choose which worker to become queen is a mystery. (Side note: I have seen “royal jelly” hailed as a magic elixir in products from skin care to herbal supplements. Now that I know what that is…I’ll pass.)

Honeybee

Honeybee ourside her hive. Creative Commons License  Brad Smith

 

The Workers:

* Workers are all females and can number between 40,000-60,000 in a strong hive. They can travel up to five miles to collect enough pollen.

* They perform a multitude of tasks including: tending to the queen, feeding larvae, feeding drones, ripening nectar (which turns into honey), and collecting pollen.

* A worker will die if she stings. She has a barbed stinger that is left behind after stinging.

 

 

The Drones:

* Drones are all males and they have no stingers. Their sole responsibility is fertilization.

* Each hive has a few hundred drones.

 

Why are hives in hexagon shape?

Honeycombs are comprised of tightly packed hexagons (six-sides) where nectar is stored until it can ripen into honey. The hexagon walls are made of beeswax. It takes 8 oz of honey to make 1 oz of beeswax. The hexagon shape, more than triangles or squares, maximizes the little storage containers that can fit into the hive while requiring the least amount of beeswax.

Hive

Hive. Creative Commons License Irene Florez

 

So what could be happening to the worker honeybees?

Some think the die-off is a direct result of chemicals sprayed on crops. Residue from 150 different types of pesticides have been found in bee hives. It may be the aggregate of how these chemicals react with the others. A study in the journal Nature found that worker bees were 2-3 times more likely to die while away from the hive because these chemicals messed with their homing abilities to find their way back. On the bright side…

Did you know bees can dance?

You may do the Macarena, but worker honeybees do the Waggle Dance. They do it to tell the others where to find the pollen.

 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

 

 

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25 comments

    1. Such tiny creatures are the linchpin of our our modern agriculture! One solution that is gaining traction is to reduce the use of a particular chemical that is embedded in the seedlings (rather than being sprayed on the crops after they flower). Scientists believe that this chemical is of particular concern in affecting how the bees navigate. I hope that works!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. So interesting!
    I have mixed feelings about almonds. I love eating them, but they require so much water and that’s a problem for drought-ridden California. The increased consumption of almond milk has not helped at all. 1,929 gallons of water for one pound of almonds.
    The waggle dance is amazing. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing this information, Carole. I didn’t know how much water almond trees require! That is huge for an area that is struggling with drought. Add to that point, the effort of delivering bees to pollinate, and it seems that almonds would be better served by being produced in an area with more rain and more bees!

      Like

    1. We do need them — way more than they need us. 🙂
      Scientists may have narrowed down the cause. Some think it is due to a type of chemical embedded in the plant seeds themselves. Rather than being sprayed on the crops, these chemicals are much more potent. I think that some initial studies are being done.

      Like

    1. I have to say that I always just assumed the bees flew around kind of aimlessly until they struck pollen gold. It is fascinating to see how they are able to communicate location with each other. They do a better job than my GPS! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This was such a fun post. My son would especially love it! He studied bees last year in school so after his little session I thought we’d warch The Bee movie. After that he decided to watch the extras and play the games. He was totally into it. and now … a year later … he spots a bee and wonders if it’s a worker bee or a drone or if they’re “hanging out,” he says.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Bill McKibben wrote a fascinating book on the topic of bees called Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. I thought I had written a review of the book, but I can’t find it, so I must have dreamed writing it. I also loved Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, a novel that taught me a lot about bees.

    Wasps and other winged stinging insects get less PR for their role as pollinators, but they are also on the job. I try not to kill these ‘pests.’

    Liked by 1 person

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